In this week’s TIME cover story (available to subscribers here), political columnist Joe Klein outlines the serious conversations we should be having in the wake of the tragic theater shooting in Aurora, Colo. Amid the hand-wringing over policy and politics, Joe’s piece is a reminder that the question is not whether Americans can bear arms, but rather which arms we should have the right to bear:
The right to bear arms is famously enshrined in the U.S. Constitution. It is also enshrined in the American character, inherent in the chesty, libertarian Scots-Irish sensibility that populated the Appalachian backwoods and spread south and west from there. But no right is absolute. No American has the right to own a stealth bomber or a nuclear weapon. Armor-piercing bullets are forbidden. The question is where you draw a reasonable bright line.
In the early 1990s, after an astonishing rise in violent crime that started in the 1960s and peaked following drug-related gang violence during the 1980s, there seemed to be a critical mass for tighter gun laws.
Joe recounts how President Bill Clinton harnessed that sentiment by passing a landmark crime bill in 1994, and how our views have changed since then. The political will for stricter laws has diminished over the past two decades, as has violent crime. Yet mass shootings, which now plague the U.S. at an average rate of more than 18 per year, remain a terrible constant. As President Obama said in the wake of the Tucson massacre last year, the country should not remain passive in the face of such violence. But how should we react?